Profiles In Nursing

Edith Patton Lewis (1914-2005), Investigative Reporter and Editor

A psychiatric staff nurse, she wrote sharp pieces on the condition and career of being a nurse

Edith “Pat” Lewis wears and suit and tie and looks at the camera

Writing is a fact of life for nurses, whether it’s charting, scientific papers or our endless daily stream of texts and emails. Writing is a fact of life for nurses, whether it’s charting, scientific papers or our endless daily stream of texts and emails. However, few nurses make a career of writing as did Edith Patton Lewis, RN, MN, FAAN, who for over 35 years was a veritable fixture of nursing publications and professional journals.

Becoming a Nurse

Born in Philadelphia, Lewis studied psychology at Smith College and then went to work at a psychiatric facility. She soon concluded that she could better serve the mentally ill as a nurse than as a lay worker and joined the master of nursing program at Cleveland’s Western Reserve University (now Case Western), graduating in 1939.

After working for several years as a psychiatric staff nurse, educator and administrator, Lewis joined the editorial staff of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN). It marked the beginning of a 35-year career in publishing.

Steps in a Career

Working sometimes from the AJN Company offices in New York and sometimes from her home in Connecticut, Lewis — known as “Pat” to her friends — became a prolific professional writer, editor and reporter.

In 1952, she became the first managing editor of the new journal Nursing Research. She later served as acting editor of AJN and compiled a new edition of the company’s official history, published in 1960. Ten years later, she became editor of Nursing Outlook, a role she held until her retirement in 1980. She also helped to develop the AJN Company’s Contemporary Nursing book series, compiling and editing several volumes.

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Expressing Herself

Lewis, a nurse of strong opinions who never shied away from an argument, is still remembered for her many pointed editorials, some of which the AJN Company published in book form after she retired. However, she also wrote articles for AJN and other publications on a variety of topics, including some notable pieces of investigative journalism:

  • The February 1962 issue of AJN published Lewis’s story “Fire on the Ninth Floor,” her report on a devastating fire that broke out in a trash chute of a 1,000-bed hospital in Hartford, Conn., in December 1961. Within an hour, this conflagration took 15 lives, including patients, a nurse and a physician. Only the training and levelheaded response of the staff — and the courage of the nurses, who refused to leave their trapped patients — prevented further loss of life.
  • Her 1966 article “The Fairview Story” was an exposé on the deplorable conditions at a Southern California hospital for the mentally ill and developmentally delayed. It was also a compelling account of how the collective action of the California Nurses Association and the hospital’s nurses (who had not been allowed on some units and were often supervised by psychiatric technicians when they were) eventually forced the institution’s administration to overhaul their standards of patient care.

Lewis also published two books of clear-eyed advice for people interested in the nursing profession: Opportunities in Nursing, released in 1952, and Nurse: Careers Within a Career in Professional Nursing, published in 1962.

RN Career Events

As an editor, Lewis was committed to helping nurse writers strengthen their articles and their writing craft, something she often said was her greatest source of professional satisfaction. Even her rejection letters usually offered constructive, thoughtful advice.  Later, as a member of Sigma Theta Tau, she had a hand in several workshops on writing for publication. She also mentored many younger members of the AJN Company editorial staff.

No Jargon Allowed

Lewis was a firm believer that writing on nursing topics should be clear and direct. She could not abide the cumbersome sentence constructions and excessive jargon that often characterize academic writing. “[N]ever overestimate the readers’ experience or underestimate their intelligence” was a favorite maxim.

Even years after her official retirement, any nursing journal editor who published an article Lewis considered too opaque or too pompous could expect to receive an acerbic letter of comment.

For her enormous contributions to nurse writers and publishing, the American Academy of Nursing named Lewis a Living Legend in 2004, just months before her death at age 90.

ELIZABETH HANINK RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community based nursing experience.

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